Last week, the RCMP arrested a woman in Lethbridge, Alberta for allegedly threatening Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While the threats themselves weren't made public, a 49-year-old woman was arrested and charged with uttering threats. In a statement, the RCMP said:
"Using social media as a means by which to make threats against an individual or a group of people is not to be taken lightly and may result in criminal charges if a police investigation obtains evidence to support the laying of such charges."
Shortly after the Alberta woman was arrested, a Saskatchewan man was arrested for making threats against the prime minister himself.
The arrests makes total sense. It's 2017 and anything that happens online is actually real life, only for many people—especially women—this doesn't seem to be the case. Wouldn't it be great if all threats online were taken this seriously?
Anyone who's online in the most remotely public way knows it means possibly enduring a certain level of harassment. While it's a hard truth, an even harder truth is the knowledge that there's not really much you can do about online harassment, legally. As someone with a modestly sized social media following, whose job means letting anyone having an open line of communication with me, I know all too well what being a woman online means. Along with just about every other woman I know who works in media, I've received threats against my life or have had people threaten to rape me. One thing we all know for certain is contacting authorities with any of the serious threats we've received feels more or less futile.
Two months ago, Tina Oh, a climate justice activist and student at the University of New Brunswick found herself being harassed. After harassing Oh online the person then began following Oh around with a camera and posting the videos onto white supremacist forums.
From there, it escalated to physical threats made by both the harasser and her network of white supremacists. "By the time I went to the police, they had just kind of jotted down the incident and that they would send it to an officer in her district," Oh told me. The officers in question allegedly also told Oh, "Police get videotaped all the time, but we don't complain." Not only that, but she also claimed she received a call later where an officer told her, "It's not a crime to have people disagree with you."
Mary McComish of Calgary told me of a similar experience she faced when her online harassment was escalated to authorities. After a screenshot of her Tinder profile was posted and mocked on an online forum, she began receiving threats of people wanting to physically harm her. When her mother decided to report the harassment to her local authorities, she said the situation left her helpless. "They were very nice but there was absolutely nothing they could do. They knew nothing about Tinder or the internet and I spent the majority of the time explaining both to them." They promised to keep in touch but never followed up with McComish's report, telling her only to keep her social media accounts private.
"I ended up having to do everything myself, emailing people to prove my identity and having the threads removed." Still, it wasn't much of a solution for McCormish because they person who began the threads remains at large and faces no consequences.
Robert Currie, a law professor at Dalhousie University and an expert in social media law says it's complicated when comparing the threats uttered against regular people and government officials.
"Your gut instinct and mine should be that everybody should be treated equally and any threat is worthy of investigation," Currie told me. Like with the cases of Oh and McComish, getting different treatment with different police forces has a lot to do with how savvy various police forces are.
"You hear a lot of stories of serious complaints and evidence of harassment being dismissed sometimes because the police officers in question don't have enough experience or knowledge about how it all works." Because of the complexities of social media platforms, oftentimes it's difficult to understand exactly where the threats originate and the resources in finding out where the threats originate from can be a factor in how deeply reports are investigated.
In the case of someone like Trudeau and his wife, while we'd like to imagine all threats should be seen as equal (we're all tax paying Canadians after all) unfortunately, that's not the case. "I can imagine that a threat to a prominent figure is going to be taken quite seriously. I can see a case be proposed for it being prioritized," Currie said.
However, it seems like even though the RCMP has the knowledge and resources to take threats online seriously for everyone. In 2010, the RCMP launched Canada's Cyber Security Strategy, which according to their website aims to, "Protect Canadian governments, businesses, critical infrastructure and citizens from cyber threats." Defining cybercrime into two separate types: technology-as-target which looks more at unauthorized use of computers, while technology-as-instrument looks more at fraud, human trafficking, terrorism and cyber bullying.
Lumping so many forms of bad online behaviour as cybercrime under the "technology-as-instrument" umbrella, when it comes to the online harassment my colleagues and I have grown accustomed to there's very little specific information beyond one of their pages focusing more on cyber bullying teens than the death threats my colleagues and I have grown accustomed to.
I reached out to both the National and Alberta RCMP for this story but they did not respond to my request for an interview by my deadline.
Currie believes the threats have been investigated more thoroughly than they've ever been, but there's still a long way to go when investigating online crimes as aggressively as physical crimes are investigated. If lack of training is a problem, "It's high time that resources are put into it and that more training is available," Currie tells me.
As someone who's endured and continues to endure online harassment, the arrests made against the harassers of Canada's first family shows both exactly how seriously online harassment should be taken, and how seriously it is usually taken.
Ask any regular woman who's received a death or rape threat if they'd dream of their harasser being charged or arrested after a terrible Tweet, and they'd tell you it'd never happen.
Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.